Unconditional Love

One blindingly bright photo of Gilad acquiescing to a protective, awkward and surprising hug from IDF Commander-in-Chief Benny Gantz.

The photo of Gilad Shalit burying his head in his father's clavicle is not the only one which signals his return from captivity. Neither does the photo of Gilad with his mother, who did her hair especially for the occasion. There is another one. One blindingly bright photo of Gilad acquiescing to a protective, awkward and surprising hug from IDF Commander-in-Chief Benny Gantz.

Gantz's face, which is nearly one head taller than Shalit's, cannot be seen in the photo, and his arms swell up through his light IDF uniform and red beret. Shalit's frail, nearly see-through hands look shrunken on Gantz's back, as if the physical interaction between the two seems to embarrass him. His large and exhausted eyes are fixed on an unknown location, as if he is gazing into himself.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz and Gilad Shalit - IDF - 18.10.2011
IDF Spokesman's Office

Netanyahu is smiling in this photo, as is Colonel Yair Ben Shalom who is standing in the background. Barak is also smiling through his sunglasses. Why did Barak decide to wear those sunglasses while all the others are standing in the sun without any protection, and why did he not remove them while greeting Shalit, who was hidden away in the darkness, who only now is seeing daylight all at once, who looks as if he might disintegrate under the harshness of daylight. Does not the sun's brightness cause Shalit's pain to be that much more visible? Barak sticks to his sunglasses, cause that's just who he is.

But it's not only the sunlight which bother's Gilad. In each and every photograph detailing his return to Israel he looks as if he were immersed in a thick liquid of pain. This pain was certainly visible during his interview with Egyptian television, during which he bravely answered questions without identifying with his attackers (which often happens with captives), and despite of the vicious delay of his return home.

And as the number of photographs grew throughout the day, Shalit's dimensions, which at first looked weak yet healthy, actually grew smaller, at least in comparison with the dimensions of those healthy people who greeted him upon his arrival, such as Colonel Ben Shalom, who bowed to him out of worriment in one of the initial photos that were published before Shalit's arrival in Tel Nof Army Base. Shalit was still wearing the checkered shirt he received from his captors. That shirt, buttoned-up and striped, his vulnerability, and skinny face, reminded many of Josef’s striped shift and the pictures of Holocaust survivors, though there really isn’t much room for comparison, only the shadow of a metaphor and an historic memory.

The pictures of the first half of the day Shalit was freed, until he exited the helicopter to meet Netanyahu and his mother, are therefore symbolic and full of meaning of men meeting, commanders and fathers, climaxing with the meeting with the Chief of Staff. A particular picture immortalizing the way Gantz, as head of the army, executed the hugging metaphor sweeping public opinion, strengthening the fusion of the private and the public, serving as a substitute father, exemplary, while Shalit becomes an icon for all boys.

Despite the fact that he is being hugged, and his head lay on the Chief of Staff’s chest, Shalit’s body is offset to one side, and his pale white face carries the moment in silence. Because as opposed to the swift kiss given by his father, a short while after the picture was taken. Gantz’s gesture was a message to Israel’s soldiers and civilians. That is why it included a squeeze. During the Chief of Staff’s hug he said “Congratulations Gilad, be strong and everything will be alright,” and also “you’re a hero.” Noam Shalit contented himself with a short and confused kiss, even measured, after they fumbled not knowing which side to turn, he said “let’s go to mom.” Because no gesture, no words, no moment’s touch, planed or spontaneous, which can express the depth, the meaning, the complexity, and the limitlessness of the longing and love of parents.

It was this symbolic picture, under a helicopter rotor, elucidating why the love of one’s country, organized by symbols and patterns, which in this case are Gilad Shalit’s, expressed itself fully, and succeeded in saving him, just this once, unable to ever replace true private love. And it shouldn’t.